New ‘motivator’ gene found in horses may determine willingness to race

Findings suggest horse’s ‘attitude’ may be critical factor in training regime -report

Research by scientists at UCD has established genes associated with behaviour may play as big a role as a horse’s physical attributes and determine whether a thoroughbred races well or not  Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty

Research by scientists at UCD has established genes associated with behaviour may play as big a role as a horse’s physical attributes and determine whether a thoroughbred races well or not Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty

 

Ever wonder why your horse came in last. An off-day; a sleepless night due to a neighing neighbour in the stable next door, or perhaps some dodgy feed?

Research by scientists at UCD has established genes associated with behaviour may play as big a role as a horse’s physical attributes and determine whether a thoroughbred races well or not – or simply never makes it to the track. They have identified a “motivator” gene likely to play a critical role.

In previous research, the team headed by professor of equine science Emmeline Hill showed less than half of thoroughbred foals born actually race, with durability or the ability of the horse to withstand the rigours of a training regime seen as a key factor.

Its latest research published this week it has established a genetic factor to whether a horse is likely to race, by identifying genes associated with behaviour. One of these genes known as “PRCP”, they describe as the “motivator gene”.

The high proportion of thoroughbred foals that do not make a racecourse start, despite being specifically bred for this purpose, has a major economic impact not just for owners but for the racing industry as a whole. “The identification of key genes opened up exciting possibilities for the sector,” added Prof Hill, who is also chief science officer with Plusvital, a company that evaluates race horse performance.

Horse’s ‘attitude’

“Our study of 4,500 horses, some that raced and some that did not, has established a measurable genetic link to future racing potential and identified several genes of particular importance,” she said. “This is fascinating in the context of trainers’ assessments that a horse’s ‘attitude’ to their exercise regime is among the most important aspects to a positive outcome on the racetrack.”

PRCP has previously been shown to be associated with voluntary wheel running in mice. “Our findings support the theory that, just as with humans, motivation to exercise may be a critical factor in maintaining a training regime and achieving a high level of fitness. Some horses are just naturally keener for their job than others,” she explained.

The team has developed a new predictive DNA test to determine the chances a thoroughbred has of making a racecourse start in their two- and three-year-old racing seasons. Horses categorised as “high” are more likely to have a racecourse start, more likely to run in more races, more likely to have higher earnings but curiously do not have a significantly different sales price. “This is therefore valuable information that even the most astute in the market currently cannot assess from the pedigree or by physical assessment of the horse.”

Performance-limiting disorders

“Of course, genetics cannot on its own replace the current tools. There are many other reasons a horse may not progress to race, through injury or the presence of performance-limiting disorders. But while there are veterinary screening tools for those, there is currently no other means to determine a young horse’s motivation to exercise other than long-term observation, and by then it may be too late to get the best out of them,” she added.

Simon Chappell, who uses Plusvital’s genetic testing technologies and is breeder of Decrypt which was placed recently in the Irish 2,000 Guineas, said that among the large number of horses he has tested he has seen “an uncanny correlation” between the high potential horses that do well on the racetrack, and the horses that score as low potential who haven’t made the grade.